The Greek salad gets an update

David Hagedorn / Special to The Washington Post /

The Greek salad is a pretty simple affair that represents Mediterranean cuisine at its best. Healthful, refreshing and balanced, every bite of what the Greeks call “horiatiki salata” invites a sensation — be it the saltiness of the olives and feta cheese, the sweetness and acid of the tomatoes, the bite of the onions, the richness of olive oil or the herbaceousness of Greek oregano. Add to that the vibrancy of the ingredients’ colors, the contrasting textures and the fact that the salad requires so little to put together, and the sum total is unfettered satisfaction.

As would be the case with a dish that no doubt was made in ancient times, opinions run strong about which deviations from the basic recipe are allowable.

Even the olives can be a non-starter.

“It was forced into my head from an early age by my father’s father, who was from Kalamos, that a horiatiki salad was only tomato, cucumber, white onion, olive oil, feta cheese, salt and really good oregano,” says chef John Manolatos of Cashion’s Eat Place in Washington. “No (additional) acid at all, no peppers and definitely no olives. That was a bastardization.”

Manolatos pretty much adheres to that. In the summer, he combines heirloom tomatoes at their peak with fresh oregano, Dodoni feta cheese and Lakonian extra-virgin olive oil made from kalamata olives, the kind often found in horiatiki iterations.

The Greek version of panzanella, the Dakos salad, hails from Crete. That salad is made by dressing tomatoes, black olives, oregano and capers or caper berries with olive oil and piling them on top of dried barley bread to absorb juices.

In my take on the Dakos salad, I use Camparis, pureeing a couple of them to use as soaking liquid for toasted ciabatta bread slices that anchor the dish. As flavor enhancements, I throw in dill and scallions.

I have a laissez-faire attitude toward horiatiki. I use small, organic pickling cucumbers, mini seedless cucumbers or English cucumbers because they don’t need to be peeled and are less watery than regular cucumbers. I like to include red and daikon radishes, some avocado if I have one on hand and slices of jalapeno to inject heat. Others like to add bell or peperoncini peppers and capers.

As noted before, the traditional horiatiki doesn’t call for vinegar, but I like red wine vinegar’s extra touch of acid in the mix.

Two ingredients, in my opinion, are vital to any version of Greek salad: dried Greek oregano and Greek olive oil. If you place Greek oregano next to generic oregano or what’s called “Mediterranean oregano,” you’ll notice that the Greek is darker and finer. It has a more pungent, earthier flavor than the others, which have a touch of marjoram sweetness to them. Greek olive oil (high-quality, of course), to me, is greener, sweeter and more luxuriant than many Italian or Spanish ones I’ve tried.

While performing my Greek salad experiments, I used the horiatiki profile to fashion an intensely flavored salsa as an accompaniment to grilled fish or seafood. I cut the cucumber into small, neat squares, tossed them with semi-dried cherry tomatoes in oil (a great find at Whole Foods Market), feta cubes, cured black olives and preserved lemon bits. Spread on labneh and served with pita triangles, the salsa transformed into a meze.

One item most everyone agrees does not belong in an authentic Greek salad is lettuce. Naturally, I couldn’t resist spreading a mixture of cucumbers, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, feta cheese and labneh on overlapping romaine leaves and rolling it all into a cylinder, to be sliced into medallions for a first-course, restaurant-worthy presentation. It’s a method chef-restaurateur Michael Richard created for his riff on Caesar salad.

I call mine a Greek Salad Salad.